Roscommon/South Leitrim: Party politics all but expelled from the centre of Ireland

If the two by elections in the south on Friday were a experiment, what would have been the hypotheses and what might we safely conclude from it? Well, let’s look first at the one in Roscommon South Leitrim.

In neither case is the news good for political parties. First there’s a near thirty per cent drop in turnout from the last general election. And look at all those votes heaped up on the side of independents in Roscommon South Leitrim which the Dublin media (and Paddy Power) predicted would fall to Fianna Fail.

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 08.35.33

It didn’t, in part because like Manchester City in the days when it had fallen into the third division of English soccer, Fianna Fail was the team everyone else wanted a bit of. Under these lights, Connaughton did relatively well to top the poll.

In the last general election the same candidate pulled in less than 15%, but in the local elections in May they got 33% in a constituency that’s yet to return more than one FF TD. At 22% that’s a massive underhit at Dail level.

It might be too much to suggest, but it looks like the people who defected from Fianna Fail to Fine Gael are now piling in under the independent banner. It’s significant too that the further you go up the democratic ladder the greater the discount imposed.

The lifeblood of all politics is local and nowhere is it more local than in Roscommon. You only have to drive there from Cavan to understand why. There’s little in the way of public sector jobs, and the road system is appalling.

The hospital has been a source of ongoing community anxiety for twenty some years, for the few jobs it puts in the economy, and the mortal fear of facing the dreadfully slow road to Galway hospital.

When the Minister of Health broke election promises over keeping the local A&E open, the local FG TD Denis Naughton had no choice but to jump ship taking a whole swathe of local votes out of the FG pot.

Notionally, Ming pulls in from all around him. But don’t let the beard and dope smoking fool you. His vote is amply represented by the agricultural contractor Michael FitzMaurice who turned up late at the polls saying cattle had to be shifted.

He is the kind of small farmer that used to be (and still is in some parts) the backbone of the Fianna Fail party.  And Ming is not letting go of that segment without an almighty (preferably bloody) fight.

Much of this is structural problem. And one set in train back in 1977 when the then Fianna Fail government under Jack Lynch abolished the local rate and therefore the democratic bond with county based politicians.

Once the butt of Dublin insider jokes, it’s the mavericks from the Healey Raes, Lowrys, McGraths and Flanagans who are trusted to look after the county’s interest against what they see as the machinations of an arrogant Dublin government machine.

In other words, the bridge between the parish and the county, and the county and the national legislature is broken. As Peter Geoghegan and I noted on our RTE Road Trip in 2011:

The primacy of the county boundary in Ireland’s electoral system was a recurring theme. TDs are expected to fight their county’s corner in Dublin, to bring benefits back home for local voters even at the expense of the wider national interest.

Leitrim, for example, was sliced in two after 1997 and now has no TDs in the 31st Dail – a fact predicted, and greatly resented, by the populous of that county. Even in prosperous Kilkenny there were complaints about public jobs going to Carlow, and dismay that the new road was simply enabling communities further to the south.

So even if the collective decision to go increasingly independent proves to be short term and unprofitable, as a channel for disaffection it is pretty effective.

The core problem that needs addressing is not simply can one party or another recover, but can Irish democracy be fixed? Or as Roscommon blogger Hugh Lynn puts it..

The parties are taking a hiding and Fianna Fáil are now probably going to go for Micheal Martin’s head as he’s the leader! Big mistake lads! You’re calling it wrong! Your problem is closer to home!

The party people on the ground, the local organisation could be your downfall. The people you choose locally may be the issue. That’s not pointed at Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael it’s a global sweeping statement! Can you be trusted??

The end in politics, as in history, is never quite the end. Right now, the question rural Ireland is asking is: can any party be trusted? And if so, for what? Thus far there is no coherent answer to that question.

As a footnote, it should be noted that contrary to a lot of reporting in the MSM Sinn Fein did rather well here.

Martin Kenny’s vote has been a bellwether for the party’s national showing over the last two elections. Moreover, his vote is centred in Leitrim which transfers to a new Sligo Leitrim constituency where the party will already have one sitting TD.

That may give them reasons to run a second candidate there, and start to put down proper foundations in Fianna Fail’s back garden. Marvellous what you can do when you have no worries about internal leadership challenges.



  • NMS

    Mick, The recent Irish Times MRBI poll showed far greater support for cuts in taxation over spending on State services. Yet when it comes to their local services, they do not want them touched.

    All of the various contradictions are clearly visible in places like Roscommon. They want their EU farm supports, but do not want to comply with the environmental requirements that come attached.

    Their is also little desire to contribute to the State by way of taxation, indeed the anti-tax approach of the various Trotskyite fronts and Sinn Féin is more in the tradition of 1950s Poujadism, but it is not just them. The idea of not contributing in any way, while at the same time demanding local services is rife.

    Rural Roscommon, i.e. not in the hinterland of Athlone, has a huge number of small non viable national schools, which urgently need to be amalgamated. The position will only become more urgent as the birth rate continues to decline. There is clear evidence that the educational outcomes, particularly for girls is poorer in these schools. Yet we have Fianna Fáil & Sinn Féin demanding their retention. The cost of their retention being the transfer of assets from urban centres.

    The Hospital issue is of itself a microcosm of the problem. Roscommon is surrounded by hospitals, Athlone, Sligo, Mayo & Portiuncla in Ballinasloe. Is the problem that they feel the need to retain something with the county name?

    Well one more colourful culchie in the Dáil. At least, he is a real bogman!

  • Jag

    Trenchant stuff Mick, thanks.

    Agree SF did “rather well”, though still down from the 24% national opinion poll, even in a by-election with 35% turnout. They ended the day behind FG which attracted far more transfers. They had a decent candidate, a well-run campaign and SF did throw a lot (not quite the kitchen sink) at it.Okay result, but not anything to write home about.

    Would love to know why, on Saturday, GA went to Athlone (count centre in RSL) rather than Tallaght for DSW.

    The Labour party are in shock at RSL. I thought they’d do far better, and would’ve betted on them getting more than 10% with the Burton bounce and the economy recovering.Very poor result for it.

  • Droch_Bhuachaill

    “Rural Roscommon, i.e. not in the hinterland of Athlone, has a huge number of small non viable national schools, which urgently need to be amalgamated”

    On the one hand you castigate the people for “not contributing in any way”, then recommend the closure of the only visible sign of state involvement in their communities?

  • NMS

    Jag, That old simple comment applies once again about Mr. Adams, I Ran Away.

    The problem for the Sinners is that grown up politics is much harder than sloganising or shooting people. Their Budget proposals are a reflection of this with major policies dropped or hidden.

    The problem for the Labour Party and similar organisations throughout Europe, including perhaps the Trades Unions, is that the conditions that created social democracy are gone and that all parties including the Trots and Sinners, are promoting tax cuts.

    The failure of the once mighty Swedish Social Democrats to even get a third of the vote or the German SPD languishing on 23%, slightly over half of the CDU/CSU poll ratings.

    There is a similar crisis of Christian Democratic political thought, though the CD parties have managed to absorb economic liberal policies, which have the upper hand.

  • NMS

    Bhuel, a mhic, the children still need to be educated, so the reduction in the number of schools changes little other than perhaps reducing the number of buildings. Keeping open tiny schools, built in the 19th century makes little sense.Improving the standard of education does.

  • Droch_Bhuachaill

    Some schools do indeed need closing/rebuilding, but a balance must be struck between the social damage to these communities and the economical savings of closing them. I am also not sure of greater standard of education in bigger schools.

  • Jag

    Hi NMS

    Actually, my mistake on GA. He did turn up in Tallaght towards the end of the day. Some might call it a token appearance but for all I know, that was his plan all along, and perhaps he expected this part of his schedule would have been happier than it actually was.

    You say:
    ” Their Budget proposals are a reflection of this with major policies dropped or hidden.”

    Missed that, what has been dropped? By “hidden” are you referring to the wealth tax, which has attracted criticism to the SFers in the past couple of years because it is difficult to estimate and neither the CSO nor Department of Finance collects the figures on which a wealth tax would be based. Last year, the SFers declined to put a figure on wealth tax but said whatever it was, it would be used for a jobs stimulus. This year, they’re again pointing out how difficult it is to estimate, but it hasn’t been dropped, and in fairness, it’s not too hard to find.

  • technopolitics

    Sinn Féin did well, and – possibly for the first time – demonstrated mainstream levels of transfer attractiveness, even if it wasn’t enough to hold onto the lead in DSW.

    Generally, however, there’s a real problem with this drift away from mainstream parties. Theo Dorgan on the night of the Fianna Fáil meltdown in 2011 predicted that that was only the beginning (, that Fine Gael would suffer a similar fate in the next general election as centrist politics disappeared. I blogged about it too, at the time (

    It becomes increasingly about turnout, and legitimacy, I think. If general election turnout was to drift below 50% (it was 70% and 67% in 2007/2011 respectively), that should precipitate some kind of crisis. But most likely we will see headlines after the next general election where Independents are the second or third largest grouping in the Dáil.

  • NMS

    They have dropped the Wealth Tax from previous years, together with a series of adjustments to Business and Agricultural reliefs in Capital Acquisitions Tax (Gifts & Inheritances)

    The changes in their CAT policies seem mainly related to their new found support among farmers. Effectively almost all CAT is paid by Categories 2 & 3, i.e. distant relations and strangers.

    In relation to Wealth Tax, Dr. Tom McDonnell of the Nevin Economic Research Institute has produced a working paper on it.

    I would not be so worried about the Wealth Tax, as its main role tends to be as an audit tool for following the accumulation of wealth, i.e. how did a person get to a particular level of wealth.

    The previous policy in relation to restricting the 90% write off in business and agricultural write off was positive. If I remember correctly it was to reduce the relief too 60% and cap it at €3M. (The policy itself was “lifted” from a TASC document.) However at least Pearse Doherty was open to ideas.

    Yes, I see from the Irish Times today, that he did turn up. Let me apologise for casting aspersions at the former Chief of Staff of the IRA.

  • Jag

    PP thinks there will be 40 Independents/Others after GE 2016, which would indeed make them the second biggest grouping ahead of SF and FF (both 33, and FG on 50, again, PP predictions).

    PP think a FG/FF coalition is odds-on favorite, which if correct, should provide a stable right-wing government until 2021.

    Having said all of that, PP got the by-elections last week badly wrong (Cathal King 200 times more likely to win than Paul Murphy and Ivor Connaughton 20 times more likely to win than Michael Fitzmaurice)

  • NMS

    DB, There is a selection of reports, the most recent from the ESRI approx. a week ago. May I say by small schools I mean those below eighty pupils. I also agree with you that it makes no sense to have children travelling long distances so a balance between size and distance must be struck. However, the current position is crazy. Size matters for the provision of other services, e.g. múinteoir feabhais

    There needs to be some serious planning now to tackle the issue. You select core schools in each area and concentrate resources there. Dr. Diarmuid ÓGrada had quite a good article on the issue of rural planning in the Irish Times recently.

    By 2021, there will be approx. 75,000 children leaving national schools with perhaps 20,000 less entering. For example in the case of Donegal, there is likely to be over 1,000 more leaving national school than entering. This is of course equal to 25 schools with 40 children, which reflects the interest of FF & SF deputies from that neck of the woods.

    The last Minister for Education bravely attempted to reallocate resources but was slapped down by an Oide Scoile and Deputy for a county full of non-viable schools, Enda Kenny.

  • Robin Keogh

    Thats a great piece Mick and will resonate with anybody who is watching Political developments in the South. I think that in some respects the electorate and the parties are somewhat at sea at the moment. Firstly, the loss of the traditional right-wing FF/FG catch of 70 to 80 percent of the electorate is causing problems for those parties in that they are struggling to accept they are unlikely to ever reach those dizzying heights again. Secondly, that electorate have been let down by so many pillars of traditional Ireland collapsing around them (the Church, FF etc.), it may explain why they cant bring themselves to the polls at the moment, having lost confidence in institutions that were fused with their very culture and identity. Finally, the rise of the left (fragmented as it is) is somewhat confusing for people who see the need for politcal change but cant quite get their heads around SF, PBP, Socialists etc…fearing the unknown but also lacking confidence in the traditional political establishment.
    However, there are a few things we need to consider. Firstly, turnout at by-elections are always pretty poor especially when a GE is only 18 months away. Secondly, lefty voters were very well motivated and mobilised given the row over water charges and austerity, neither of which might be an issue come April 2016. Finaly, independent candidtaes are usually seem as single issue angels rather than multi issue discipliarians. There are only so many non-party reps a parliament can hold before you end up with a mulfunctioning house.
    Ultimately, parties like SF will have to work much harder to convince the electorate that if you are not happy with water charges, household charges, austrity, hospital closures etc. you will ultimately waste your vote by voting for individuals that have no hope of gaining the power neceassary to repeal them.

  • Robin Keogh

    So much happenning in the world of poliics at the moment, how anybody could seriously predict the outcome of a general election in 18 months time is beyond me.

  • Robin Keogh

    SF well beat even their own best estimates in RSL, given that S.Leitrim will be reunited with the rest of its hinterland next time out, Mick could be correct in seeing a second shinner seat in 2016

  • Robin Keogh

    We wont really know how the Shinners deal with grown up politics untill they are tested in power. Getting it wrong in the run up is far better than messing it up when you are there. Their budget proposals are costed and reflect their position on the need to shift away from over concentration on a failed economic model in favour of a more egalitarian focus. The fortunes of parties of all ideoligical ilk ebb and flow, be it Sweden, Germany, Ireland or Argentina. Such is the culture of polical competition, all it shows is that people change their minds for a multitude of reasons and nobody ever gets it so right that they stay in power forever delivering prosperity for eternity.

  • Robin Keogh

    Respectfuly, that does not really make much sense. Is it not normal for a party to change policy depending on circumstances so long as they maintain their manifesto commitments at the time? The proof of the pudding is in the eating so they say and while we have proof that FF/FG/LAB have pretty much lied their way into governemt abandoning dozens of promised policies we dont have that info on the Shinners as they are yet to be tested. Speaking of proof….former chief of staff of the IRA? Do tell how you know this?

  • Robin Keogh

    Well of couse there are going to be contradictions, the job of politicians is to balance them and resolve in a way that creates the fariest outcome possible. I dont know of any anti-tax party n theis Island at the moment, but if you can prove to me one exists, they will certainly get my kamikaze vote. Retaining educational facitities that provide children with an adequete education and satisfy the requirements of parents is hardly an unusual social phenomonan. Transferring assets is also normal practise given the natural regional economic imbalance prevalent in all societies. Hospitals are rquired to take care of the sick, it is not unreasonable for taxpayers to expect have access to medical assistance within a reasonable distance of their town and village.

  • Jag

    Tested in power? Like in NI?

    SFers should be praying their inward looking political rivals in the South don’t pick up on such gems as this (on Nolan this morning).

  • technopolitics

    FF/FG coalition in those circumstances (let’s say 40+ seats each) would be massively unpopular. I’m not sure it could survive. Imagine FG taking that kind of hammering (losing 20 seats or so) and retaining the position of Taoiseach? However, it would probably represent the best of a bad lot. It just wouldn’t last very long.

    The country would then lurch into a search for vision – hopefully. Because there isn’t any right now.

  • Robin Keogh

    The northern assembly is no comparison to a soveriegn governemnt with control of tax and spend policies. Stormont is just living proof as why partition doesnt work and SF correctly show up the fact that you cant run a society on crumbs handed down by out of touch overlords.

  • mickfealty

    Not sure they’ll do that but they could have the luxury of running two next time. The next election could be named the change election, but it may not bed in for another Dail after.

  • technopolitics

    I’m happy to predict that Fine Gael will not win more seats.


  • Jag

    Luke “ming” Flanagan claimed last night on TV3 that GA stayed a total of 21 nights in Roscommon for this election campaign, which actually does suggest the SFers threw the kitchen sink at it.

    I don’t think an analysis of the 2011 and 2014 election results for this constituency shows any marked improvement in transfer attractiveness for SF. Given the turnouts, didn’t they get more or less the same number of transfers in 2011 as 2014 by the time they were eliminated?

    I still go with Mick’s characterisation of SF doing “rather well” in RSL, but not in the sense of understatement as in “John ran the mile in under three minutes, he did rather well”. The SFers did okay.

  • NMS

    Robin, unfortunately all the parties are to a greater or lesser extent anti-tax, in the sense that they are in favour of substantially shifting the tax burden to anyone else other than their perceived supporters.

    There is a complete disconnect in people’s minds between taxation and services.

  • NMS

    Robin, they have been tested in UK NI and have been found wanting. Go listen to the Stephen Nolan piece.